You can hear them for miles — great swells of sound from the bells of the Church of the Ascension that jangle and chime through the neighborhoods of Middletown.
Inside the soaring stone bell tower furiously pounding the keys of the carillon is Noah Carpenter, a Wright State University music student who may be the youngest carillonneur in the land.
“If you just think about the sound — hearing it echoing through the sky, roaring through the trees — it’s a beautiful sounding instrument,” he said. “It’s unique in the way that it has its own character.”
Carillons are musical instruments usually consisting of cup-shaped bells played to produce a melody or sounded together to play a chord. The carillonneur typically sits in a chamber beneath the bells and presses down with loosely closed fists on a series of baton-like keys arranged like a piano keyboard.
“It’s large chunks of metal smashing into large other chunks of metal,” said Carpenter. “To play it, you’re literally just punching wooden handles. The harder you punch it, the louder it plays.”
The majestic Church of the Ascension was built in 1929 from stones brought over from England. The tower was constructed in the 1960s.
The oldest carillon in North America is at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. There is also a carillon next to Arlington National Cemetery and one at the Washington National Cathedral.
While there are a number of colleges offering carillon instruction around the country, Carpenter may be one of the few students who have a carillon to play off campus.
Carpenter gets to the carillon in Middletown by winding his way up a spiral metal staircase that corkscrews up two stories to a chamber below the bells. He takes a seat at the bench and begins pounding on the wooden batons, which tug on metal wires that swing and toll the bells just overhead at the top of the tower.
“To see the bells and hear them ringing and to see them swinging up in the tower — it’s an amazing thing,” he said.
Carpenter’s fingers often crack open and bleed when he plays the carillon. He goes through a box of Band-Aids every week.
“When you’re playing, you don’t even realize it,” he said. “When you stop, it hurts a good bit.”
There are 37 bronze-and-tin bells in the Dutch-style carillon. The smallest one is 17 pounds; the largest is several tons. Each bell can give off five different overtones, depending on how hard it is struck by its clapper. The bells are also temperature sensitive, giving off different sounds in the winter than they do in the summer.
Carpenter says the carillon can be as loud as a rock concert or even a jet engine.
“It’s a beast,” he said.
The bells can be heard on the outskirts of Middletown and even by motorists on Interstate 75.
“If I make a mistake, people will hear it for miles,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter plays the carillon once or twice a week, typically for 45 minutes to an hour. He plays hymns, Christmas carols, tunes from “Phantom of the Opera” and even songs by the Australian rock band AC/DC. And he takes requests from the neighbors. On this particular day, he is playing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” one of the best-known hymns by reformer Martin Luther.
The only complaint Carpenter has ever received was when he was playing the bells at 9:30 p.m.
“Other than that, everybody loves the bells,” he said. “People say they have been walking by and having a bad day and hear the bells and it made their day.”
Carpenter grew up in Bolivar, a tiny village in northeast Ohio south of Canton. He began taking piano lessons in the fourth grade at his grandmother’s suggestion.
“I was always tinkering on the piano with her,” he said.
One day, the organist at Carpenter’s church called him and invited him to play the organ during services, which he began doing. One day he was exploring the church and opened up the bell tower. Inside he discovered a small carillon that had not been played in a long time and didn’t work.
After an electronic carillon was donated to the church, Carpenter and his grandfather wired it up and put it in the tower. But Carpenter also began tinkering around with the original carillon, and his love affair with the bells began.
Carpenter estimates there are only about two dozen carillonneurs in the entire state of Ohio.
“It’s a dying art, for sure,” said the 20-year-old Carpenter. “I am one of the youngest, if not the youngest, carillonneur in the United States.”
As he approached graduation at Tuscarawas Valley High School, Carpenter began looking at colleges. He and a family friend came down to Wright State to take a look and were driving around campus.
“Before I even got out of the car, something just felt right,” he recalled. “I felt at home.”
His decision was cemented after meeting with some of the professors, and in 2017 he enrolled at Wright State to study the organ. He also became involved with the Kettering Children’s Choir, serving as the assistant director and conducting.
Carpenter is double majoring in organ performance and vocal music education. After graduation, he wants to teach high school choir and then move on to the collegiate level.
Shortly after arriving at Wright State, Carpenter discovered Dayton’s Deeds Carillon, the largest carillon in Ohio and one of the largest in the country. He also found out that the carillonneur was Larry Weinstein, a supply chain management professor at Wright State.
Weinstein connected Carpenter with Middletown’s Church of the Ascension, which was looking for a carillonneur. The bells had not been played regularly for about five years. Carpenter met with church officials last September.
“They gave me a key to the tower,” he said.
Gloria Lennon-Freeman, a parishioner who works in the church office, calls Carpenter “a gift” to the church.
“The bell tower, of course, is sort of everybody’s pride and joy,” she said. “…I adore his playing. … It’s really the best I’ve ever heard. … He’s just a treasure for us.”